Fdd's overnight brief

March 28, 2019

In The News


Microsoft took control of 99 websites that it said Iranian hackers had used to try to steal sensitive information from targets in the United States, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday. – New York Times

Iran welcomed on Thursday a Luxembourg court’s decision to refuse to reinforce a U.S. ruling that would have helped families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks claim Iranian assets held by a Luxembourg-based clearing house. – Reuters

Japan has extended state-backed insurance to cover imports of oil from Iran, potentially allowing the country’s refiners to continue loading crude cargoes from the Middle Eastern nation, a government official told Reuters on Thursday. – Reuters

It was a quiet day in January, and many oil traders were still on holiday, when two sources in the industry called to alert me to something unusual – a supertanker that had gone off radar for two weeks appeared off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and was pumping out fuel oil to two smaller vessels. The sources said it appeared that the supertanker was selling Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. If confirmed, the sale would shine a rare light on how traders and shippers were evading the sanctions. – Reuters

A month ago, on February 25, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared to resign from his position. However, since then he has not only remained at his post but has grown in stature. This was particularly a result of his handling of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Iraq. Reports now indicate that he is the point-man for Iran’s quest to create a new chapter and strategic bond with Iraq. – Jerusalem Post


Four years, nine months, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of allied fighters’ lives. As the U.S.-backed Syrian forces declared a triumphant end last weekend to the battle against the Islamic State, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, took a mental inventory. Millions of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died or been displaced in the conflict, which erupted less than three years after Washington declared victory in a previous insurgent war. U.S. combat casualties stand at 14. From that grim tabulation, Votel drew one central conclusion: America cannot afford to take its counterterrorism gains for granted. – Washington Post

The Syrian military said Israel on Wednesday launched raids on an industrial zone in the northern city of Aleppo, causing damage only to materials, while opposition sources said the strikes hit Iranian ammunitions stores and a military airport used by Tehran’s forces. – Reuters

Shoshana Bryen writes: Syria’s “allies” — Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah — are taking what they want, cutting in Turkey as desired, and cutting out the United States and Israel. This bodes ill for future stability in the region and for US interests. […]While it seemed that Russia’s goal in Syria was to solidify its bases at Tartus and Latakia, recent reports have Russia turning Latakia over to Iranian management, solidifying the western end of Iran’s Shiite Crescent. Russia is likely to turn its back on the “no-Iran, no-Hezbollah zones” near the Israeli border that it helped to establish, leaving Israel to manage the border with little outside political support. – Algemeiner


President Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights became the latest rallying call against U.S. policies at the U.N. Security Council. – Wall Street Journal

As a supporter of boycotting Israel, Mieke Zagt had no intention of marketing Israeli wine when she posted on Twitter a picture of it on sale at the Hema Dutch supermarket chain. But her tweet, meant to protest the sale, prompted Israel supporters here to mount a social media reaction so successful that the Israeli wines sold out at the Hema and the campaign became the number-one trending topic on Dutch Twitter on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

The Trump administration says it will update U.S. government maps to reflect President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. – Voice of America

The leader of Hamas viewed the rubble of his bombed office in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, appearing in public as an uneasy calm took hold after two days of cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes. – Reuters

All 28 EU member states have rejected the US recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria, the office of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

The Egyptian security delegation, which arrived in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday evening, urged the Palestinian factions, and in particular Hamas, to maintain restraint towards the end of the week and to prevent an escalation during the planned demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the March of Return along the Gaza border fence. – Haaretz

Shaul Bartal writes: In stark contrast to the extraordinary vision and courage displayed by Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in signing their peace treaty 40 years ago, the Palestinian leadership has been staunchly rejectionist and a serial squanderer of opportunities for peace. One can only hope that the Arab regimes, which appear increasingly reluctant to remain hostage to Palestinian rejectionism, will be courageous enough to follow in Sadat’s visionary footsteps. – Algemeiner

Vivian Bercovici writes: There are consequences to military attacks, particularly when the attacker loses. International law is silent on this point, and for good reason. Because it was, on a logical basis, incomprehensible. People may hate president Trump and PM Netanyahu. They may be contemptuous of the timing of America’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But it is not contrary to international law. And it does not impact the outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict one iota. – Commentary Magazine

Steve Israel writes: During my 16 years in Congress, I strongly supported the United Nations. I believed — and continue to believe — in human rights as a vital tenet of our foreign policy. And I’m repulsed by current U.S. policies that coddle dictators and diminish democracy. But inquiries such as this — one-sided, biased and deeply hypocritical — do no service to the U.N., or to the human rights movement. They must be exposed for what they are: sharp daggers pointed only at Israel, sheathed in the soft cover of concern for human rights. – The Hill

Arabian Peninsula

According to an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, British soldiers have been involved in firefights with, and been wounded by, Houthi rebels in Yemen and have been involved in providing support to Saudi-funded militias that use child soldiers. – Al Jazeera

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has approved six secret authorizations by companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia, according to a copy of a document seen by Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the Trump administration is still working “all across the government” to identify and hold accountable anyone responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Reuters

Members of the House questioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and why Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has not been held accountable for his death. – Newseek

Middle East & North Africa

Excluding NATO-member Turkey from the trillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet program would be challenging due to Ankara’s integral role in the stealthy jet’s production process, but not impossible, U.S. sources familiar with the situation said. – Reuters

Iraq’s State Company for Military Industries (SCMI) unveiled a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during the IQDEX show held in Baghdad in March. – Jane’s 360

Kenneth M. Pollack writes: Da’ish and Hizballah are the two most important Arab non-state militaries that demonstrated a clear superiority in their battlefield competence over the vast majority of Arab militaries since the Second World War.  Understanding why they were exceptionally more successful is therefore a critical element in understanding how Arab society has shaped its armed forces during the modern era, and how the Middle Eastern military balance may change in the future. – Real Clear Books

Korean Peninsula

North Korean hackers pose a serious threat to the international banking system, a top investigator with the United Nations warned U.S. lawmakers Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

The head of U.S. Forces Korea has warned that North Korea did not appear to be denuclearizing in the wake of last month’s summit, from which President Donald Trump walked away with no deal. – Newsweek

The U.S. military’s top officer in South Korea told lawmakers Wednesday that there’s a “palpable air of calm on the peninsula” but other officials warned that communist Pyongyang failed to follow through on efforts to make the peace permanent. – Military Times

Aaron Blake writes: So this is not a coincidence or a matter of over-parsing. It’s clear he and Trump are studiously avoiding blaming Kim personally, and no amount of testiness from Pompeo should obscure that. He doesn’t even want to say Kim assassinated his relatives. And again, this involves an American citizen. By repeatedly declining to personally blame Kim, it effectively gives him a personal pass on this one. That’s not making this about politics; it’s making sure the administration is clear about who it holds responsible for human rights violations. And the less culpability there is for human rights abuses, the less incentive there is to stop committing them. – Washington Post


The former head of Interpol, a Chinese bureaucrat at the missing-persons bureau who himself went missing in China, has been stripped of all his positions and expelled from the Communist Party, the party watchdog said Wednesday. – Washington Post

The United States and China open the latest round of their trade talks Thursday as the economic superpowers edge towards a deal to resolve a months-long spat that has rattled the global economy. – Agence France-Presse

Russia and China have set out to revamp their naval forces and hold joint drills next month as the United States accused the two of destabilizing activities challenging its own global military dominance. – Newsweek

The American authorities have classified Grindr, the dating app targeted at gay users, as a security risk because it’s owned by Chinese gaming group Beijing Kunlun Tech, Reuters reported on Wednesday. The fuzzy nature of overseas investment scrutiny means that one review doesn’t dictate the outcome of future ones – but it’s likely that Grindr’s problems will stoke more bad blood in the U.S.-China relationship. – Reuters

Michael Schuman writes: As China quickly becomes a superpower, how its relations with the U.S. unfold will shape global affairs. If they descend into confrontation, the world could again split into two blocs competing for dominance, as happened during the Cold War. More cooperative ties, conversely, would bolster global economic prospects, as well as hopes that pressing international problems, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, could be addressed. – The Atlantic

Edwin Feulner writes: We believe that the United States and Taiwan must make a bilateral Taiwan–U.S. free trade agreement a reality, not merely a talking point. What a great way of celebrating and upgrading the 40-year-old TRA that will be! […]Let us begin discussions, discover the possible hurdles, negotiate in an open and candid manner, and make a bilateral FTA a reality. Then, truly, the Taiwan–U.S. partnership for freedom will play a more important role in shaping American policy toward China and in securing American interests throughout Asia. – Heritage Foundation

South Asia

The United States, Britain and France stepped up a push for the United Nations Security Council to blacklist the head of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) on Wednesday after China prevented an earlier move two weeks ago. – Reuters

Pakistan moved on Wednesday to cool a row with Afghanistan over reported comments by Prime Minister Imran Khan that were taken to suggest that Kabul should set up an interim government to help smooth peace talks with the Taliban. – Reuters

At a prayer meeting for the health of the Dalai Lama at his base in northern India, Tibetan refugees said they are worried that their fight for a homeland will die with the 83-year-old Buddhist monk as China’s international influence grows. – Reuters

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned any nations contemplating anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests like the one India carried out on Wednesday that they risk making a “mess” in space because of debris fields they can leave behind. – Reuters

It’s not quite an arms race when only four countries — Russia, India, China and the US, the supposed space ‘superpowers’ — are building up their technology, that too years apart. But, it is a cause for concern if other countries follow in their footsteps — especially in light of the fact that there are no terms of agreement in place for the use of ASATs. – Business Insider


Russia has challenged the United States’ relationship with Lebanon as the head of the strategic Mediterranean country appeared to align itself more closely with Moscow’s view of the region in back-to-back diplomatic encounters with both powers.  Newsweek

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he hopes to be able in the coming days to announce additional measures along with Western allies to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Nataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio write: Russia is expanding its economic and military hold over the Arctic in order to preposition for its long-term bid to secure resources, expand its defense posture, and gain strategic advantage over the U.S. and China. The Kremlin is establishing its control in the Northern Sea Route, following its success in claiming sovereignty over the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea in November 2018. – Institute for the Study of War

James R. Holmes writes: So it is in polar waters. NATO members, including the United States itself, comprise much of the Arctic rim. Their capacity to defy bullying vastly outstrips that of ASEAN in the South China Sea, let alone the revolution-wracked Caribbean states of Roosevelt’s day. NATO allies can push back — if they will. The warlike talk emanating from Moscow could prove galvanic, inducing allied capitals to rouse themselves and harness their immense diplomatic and military potential to defend freedom of the sea. – The Hill


Prime Minister Theresa May told fellow Conservative Party lawmakers on Wednesday that she was prepared to resign before the next round of Brexit negotiations with the European Union, offering up her leadership post in an effort to persuade hard-liners to support her unpopular plan to exit the bloc. – Washington Post

Prosecutors in Austria are investigating possible links between the Christchurch gunman and an Austrian far-right group after its leader received a donation in the suspect’s name, raising new questions about the attacker’s European connections. – Wall Street Journal

Controversial UK Labour party activist Jackie Walker has been expelled from the party over antisemitic statements she has made. – Algemeiner

Stuart Gottlieb writes: Russia is now a marginal threat compared with the dark days of the Cold War, and Germany is a robust liberal democracy. But American involvement in NATO — perhaps reduced, and perhaps along with new enforced limits on NATO expansion and missions — remains as critical today as it was in the post-World War II era. – New York Times


Democratic Republic of Congo’s new President Felix Tshisekedi will visit Washington in early April to discuss strengthening economic and security ties, the State Department said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The United Nations has dispatched human rights experts to central Mali to investigate a weekend massacre of at least 157 villagers seen as one of the worst acts of bloodshed in a country beset by ethnic violence. – Reuters

Pope Francis will visit the African nations of Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius in September, the Vatican said on Wednesday. – Reuters

United States

Two former top CIA officials have compiled an unclassified report on the major national security challenges facing the United States, which they are distributing to every candidate running for president. […]The former officials said they’re distributing their briefing now, more than a year before nominees are selected, in response to “the recent rise and abundance of fake news and foreign election interference,” according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post. – Washington Post

A Chabad center in Flagstaff, Arizona, was the target of a nighttime hate crime last weekend, with the premises vandalized with Nazi symbols. Unidentified individuals broke into Chabad of Flagstaff’s Molly Blank Jewish Community Center, which is currently under construction, and vandalized the premises, smearing swastikas on to the windows and etching them into the walls. – Algemeiner

A top aide to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was criticized on Wednesday for claiming antisemitism was purely a right-wing phenomenon. – Algemeiner

David Suissa writes: If Ilhan Omar is serious about helping the oppressed Arab and Muslim victims of the Middle East, including in her country of Somalia, she’s got plenty of non-Jewish targets to go after. If she’s serious about helping Palestinians, in addition to criticizing Israel, she can go after the corrupt regimes in Ramallah and Gaza who keep failing their people. – Jewish Journal

Latin America

Detailing an increasingly desperate situation in Venezuela, the United Nations made a confidential plea on Wednesday to the country’s two rival leaders to end a political battle over humanitarian aid that has blocked shipments of food and medicine. – New York Times

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, surely knew that he was wading into fraught territory when he wrote to King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis with a request rooted in history. As the 500th anniversary of the 1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztecs nears, Mr. López Obrador proposed that King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis ask forgiveness for the abuses inflicted on the indigenous peoples of Mexico. – New York Times

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence condemned Russia’s support for Venezuela’s embattled president during a meeting with Fabiana Rosales, the wife of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the White House has declared the legitimate president. – Wall Street Journal

The United States said on Wednesday it had reached an agreement with three Central American countries to carry out joint police operations in the region, as the Trump administration seeks to stem the flow of migrants across its southern border. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Russia to pull its troops from Venezuela and said that “all options” were open to make that happen. – Reuters

Eli Lake writes: For the past two months, many of America’s allies have worried that U.S. President Donald Trump really means it when he says that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Venezuela. It turns out that they should have been paying more attention to Russian President Vladimir Putin. […]Russia has not sent enough guns or troops to make much of a difference to Maduro. More sanctions will hopefully deter the Russians further. In which case, the Trump administration will be able to continue what has been a largely bipartisan policy: encouraging a nonviolent, democratic transition in Venezuela. – Bloomberg


Facebook is extending its ban on hate speech to prohibit the promotion and support of white nationalism and white separatism. The company previously allowed such material even though it has long banned white supremacists. The social network said Wednesday that it didn’t apply the ban previously to expressions of white nationalism because it linked such expressions with broader concepts of nationalism and separatism — such as American pride or Basque separatism (which are still allowed). – Associated Press

A cyber-attack on a Norwegian aluminium company has cost it at least 300 million Norwegian kroner (£25.6m). – BBC

It’s no secret that the United States relies heavily on software to execute missions imperative to defending the country. But the federal government also faces barriers when it comes to recruiting and retaining talented workers to develop secure, high-quality technology faster than U.S. adversaries. – Federal Times

The 35-day government shutdown that stretched from the end of December 2018 to the end of January 2019 left some information security professionals in a quandary: they no longer had access to the resources they needed to comply with security standards established to help public and private entities protect data and systems. – Fifth Domain


A former National Security Agency contractor accused in a massive theft of classified information is expected to plead guilty Thursday in what U.S. prosecutors had once portrayed as a “breathtaking” breach at the nation’s biggest spy shop. – Associated Press

A recent anti-satellite test by India serves as an example of why the U.S. is working to create a stand-alone Space Force that will focus on military needs in that domain, according to the head of the Pentagon. – Defense News

The U.S. Army is developing an extended-range cannon artillery system and will start building prototypes by the end of the year, according to the head of the services Long-Range Precision Fires modernization program. But beyond the first iteration, the service plans to add an autoloader starting in 2024, Col. John Rafferty explained. – Defense News

The Army’s major exercise in the Indo-Pacific theater in fiscal year 2020 will focus on a South China Sea scenario, Gen. Brown, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific told Defense News in a March 26 interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium. – Defense News

The U.S. Army released its new air and missile defense framework March 27 that aims to pursue multimission units and counter emerging threats like drones and hypersonic missiles, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command chief told Defense News in an interview just ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium. – Defense News

Trump Administration

When Attorney General William Barr sent lawmakers a summary of the key findings in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, members of President Donald Trump’s legal team were gathered in an office near the U.S. Capitol. – Reuters

The battle over releasing the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report intensified Wednesday as Democrats in Congress insisted the attorney general, William Barr, must quickly release its full findings. […]Skepticism mounted over Barr’s four-page synopsis, which was released Sunday and found no evidence Donald Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. – Associated Press